Chapter 7 - The Plaza
Sayula was a little lake resort; not for the idle rich, for Mexico has few left; but for tradespeople from Guadalajara, and week- enders. Even of these, there were few.
Nevertheless, there were two hotels, left over, really, from the safe quiet days of Don Porfirio, as were most of the villas. The outlying villas were shut up, some of them abandoned. Those in the village lived in a perpetual quake of fear. There were many terrors, but the two regnant were bandits and bolshevists.
Bandits are merely men who, in the outlying villages, having very often no money, no work, and no prospects, take to robbery and murder for a time - occasionally for a lifetime - as a profession. They live in their wild villages until troops are sent after them, when they retire into the savage mountains, or the marshes.
Bolshevists, somehow, seem to be born on the railway. Wherever the iron rails run, and passengers are hauled back and forth in railway coaches, there the spirit of rootlessness, of transitoriness, of first and second class in separate compartments, of envy and malice, and of iron and demonish panting engines, seems to bring forth the logical children of materialism, the bolshevists.
Sayula had her little branch of railway, her one train a day. The railway did not pay, and fought with extinction. But it was enough.
Sayula also had that real insanity of America, the automobile. As men used to want a horse and a sword, now they want a car. As women used to pine for a home and a box at the theatre, now it is a 'machine.' And the poor follow the middle class. There was a perpetual rush of 'machines', motor-cars and motor-buses - called camiónes - along the one forlorn road coming to Sayula from Guadalajara. One hope, one faith, one destiny; to ride in a camión, to own a car.
There was a little bandit scare when Kate arrived in the village, but she did not pay much heed. At evening she went into the plaza, to be with the people. The plaza was a square with big trees and a disused bandstand in the centre, a little promenade all round, and then the cobbled streets where the donkeys and the camiónes passed. There was a further little section of real market-place, on the north side.
The band played no more in Sayula, and the elegancia strolled no more on the inner pavement around the plaza, under the trees. But the pavement was still good, and the benches were still more-or- less sound. Oh Don Porfirio's day! And now it was the peons and Indians, in their blankets and white clothes, who filled the benches and monopolized the square. True, the law persisted that the peons must wear trousers in the plaza, and not the loose great floppy drawers of the fields. But then the peons also WANTED to wear trousers, instead of the drawers that were the garb of their humble labour.
The plaza now belonged to the peons. They sat thick on the benches, or slowly strolled round in their sandals and blankets. Across the cobbled road on the north side, the little booths selling soup and hot food were crowded with men after six o'clock; it was cheaper to eat out, at the end of a day's work. The women at home could eat tortillas, never mind the caldo, the soup or the meat mess. At the booths which sold tequila, men, women, and boys sat on the benches with their elbows on the board. There was a mild gambling game, where the man in the centre turned the cards, and the plaza rang to his voice: Cinco de Spadas! Rey de Copas! A large, stout, imperturbable woman, with a cigarette on her lip and danger in her lowering black eye, sat on into the night, selling tequila. The sweetmeat man stood by his board and sold sweets at one centavo each. And down on the pavement, small tin torch-lamps flared upon tiny heaps of mangoes or nauseous tropical red plums, two or three centavos the little heap, while the vendor, a woman in the full wave of her skirt, or a man with curious patient humility, squatted waiting for a purchaser, with that strange fatal indifference and that gentle sort of patience so puzzling to a stranger. To have thirty cents' worth of little red plums to sell; to pile them on the pavement in tiny pyramids, five in a pyramid; and to wait all day and on into the night, squatting on the pavement and looking up from the feet to the far-off face of the passer-by and potential purchaser, this, apparently, is an occupation and a living. At night by the flare of the tin torch, blowing its flame on the wind.
Usually there would be a couple of smallish young men with guitars of different sizes, standing close up facing one another like two fighting cocks that are uttering a long, endless swan-song, singing in tense subdued voices the eternal ballads, not very musical, mournful, endless, intense, audible only within close range; keeping on and on till their throats were scraped. And a few tall, dark men in red blankets standing around, listening casually, and rarely, very rarely making a contribution of one centavo.
In among the food-booths would be another trio, this time two guitars and a fiddle, and two of the musicians blind; the blind ones singing at a high pitch, full speed, yet not very audible. The very singing seemed secretive, the singers pressing close in, face to face, as if to keep the wild, melancholy ballad re-echoing in their private breasts, their back to the world.
And the whole village was in the plaza, it was like a camp, with the low, rapid sound of voices. Rarely, very rarely, a voice rose above the deep murmur of the men, the musical ripple of the women, the twitter of children. Rarely any quick movement; the slow promenade of men in sandals, the sandals, called huaraches, making a slight cockroach shuffle on the pavement. Sometimes, darting among the trees, barelegged boys went sky-larking in and out of the shadow, in and out of the quiet people. They were the irrepressible boot-blacks, who swarm like tiresome flies in a barefooted country.
At the south end of the plaza, just across from the trees and cornerwise to the hotel, was a struggling attempt at an outdoor café, with little tables and chairs on the pavement. Here, on weekdays, the few who dared flaunt their prestige would sit and drink a beer or a glass of tequila. They were mostly strangers. And the peons, sitting immobile on the seats in the background, looked on with basilisk eyes from under the great hats.
But on Saturdays and Sundays there was something of a show. Then the camiónes and motor-cars came in lurching and hissing. And, like strange birds alighting, you had slim and charming girls in organdie frocks and face-powder and bobbed hair, fluttering into the plaza. There they strolled, arm in arm, brilliant in red organdie and blue chiffon and white muslin and pink and mauve and tangerine frail stuffs, their black hair bobbed out, their dark slim arms interlaced, their dark faces curiously macabre in the heavy make-up; approximating to white, but the white of a clown or a corpse.
In a world of big, handsome peon men, these flappers flapped with butterfly brightness and an incongruous shrillness, manless. The supply of fifis, the male young elegants who are supposed to equate the flappers, was small. But still, fifis there were, in white flannel trousers and white shoes, dark jackets, correct straw hats, and canes. Fifis far more ladylike than the reckless flappers; and far more nervous, wincing. But fifis none the less, gallant, smoking a cigarette with an elegant flourish, talking elegant Castilian, as near as possible, and looking as if they were going to be sacrificed to some Mexican god within a twelvemonth; when they were properly plumped and perfumed. The sacrificial calves being fattened.
On Saturday, the fifis and the flappers and the motor-car people from town - only a forlorn few, after all - tried to be butterfly gay, in sinister Mexico. They hired the musicians with guitars and fiddle, and the jazz music began to quaver, a little too tenderly, without enough kick.
And on the pavement under the trees of the alameda - under the trees of the plaza, just near the little tables and chairs of the café, the young couples began to gyrate à la mode. The red and the pink and the yellow and the blue organdie frocks were turning sharply with all the white flannel trousers available, and some of the white flannel trousers had smart shoes, white with black strappings or with tan brogue bands. And some of the organdie frocks had green legs and green feet, some had legs à la nature, and white feet. And the slim, dark arms went around the dark blue fifi shoulders - or dark blue with a white thread. And the immeasurably soft faces of the males would smile with a self-conscious fatherliness at the whitened, pretty, reckless little faces of the females; soft, fatherly, sensuous smiles, suggestive of a victim's luxuriousness.
But they were dancing on the pavement of the plaza, and on this pavement the peons were slowly strolling, or standing in groups watching with black, inscrutable eyes the uncanny butterfly twitching of the dancers. Who knows what they thought? - whether they felt any admiration and envy at all, or only just a silent, cold, dark-faced opposition? Opposition there was.
The young peons in their little white blouses, and the scarlet serape folded jauntily on one shoulder, strolled slowly on under their big heavy, poised hats, with a will to ignore the dancers. Slowly, with a heavy, calm balance, they moved irresistibly through the dance, as if the dance did not exist. And the fifis in white trousers, with organdie in their arms, steered as best they might, to avoid the heavy, relentless passage of the young peons, who went on talking to one another, smiling and flashing powerful white teeth, in a black, heavy sang-froid that settled like a blight even on the music. The dancers and the passing peons never touched, never jostled. In Mexico you do not run into people accidentally. But the dance broke against the invisible opposition.
The Indians on the seats, they too watched the dancers for a while. Then they turned against them the heavy negation of indifference, like a stone on the spirit. The mysterious faculty of the Indians, as they sit there, so quiet and dense, for killing off any ebullient life, for quenching any light and colourful effervescence.
There was indeed a little native dance-hall. But it was shut apart within four walls. And the whole rhythm and meaning was different, heavy, with a touch of violence. And even there, the dancers were artisans and mechanics or railway-porters, the half-urban people. No peons at all - or practically none.
So, before very long, the organdie butterflies and the flannel- trouser fifis gave in, succumbed, crushed once more beneath the stone-heavy passivity of resistance in the demonish peons.
The curious, radical opposition of the Indians to the thing we call the spirit. It is spirit which makes the flapper flap her organdie wings like a butterfly. It is spirit which creases the white flannel trousers of the fifi and makes him cut his rather pathetic dash. They try to talk the elegancies and flippancies of the modern spirit.
But down on it all, like a weight of obsidian, comes the passive negation of the Indian. He understands soul, which is of the blood. But spirit, which is superior, and is the quality of our civilization, this, in the mass, he darkly and barbarically repudiates. Not until he becomes an artisan or connected with machinery does the modern spirit get him.
And perhaps it is this ponderous repudiation of the modern spirit which makes Mexico what it is.
But perhaps the automobile will make roads even through the inaccessible soul of the Indian.
Kate was rather sad, seeing the dance swamped. She had been sitting at a little table, with Juana for dueña, sipping a glass of absinthe.
The motor-cars returning to town left early, in a little group. If bandits were out, they had best keep together. Even the fifis had a pistol on their hips.
But it was Saturday, so some of the young 'elegance' was staying on, till the next day; to bathe and flutter in the sun.
It was Saturday, so the plaza was very full, and along the cobbled streets stretching from the square many torches fluttered and wavered upon the ground, illuminating a dark salesman and an array of straw hats, or a heap of straw mats called petates, or pyramids of oranges from across the lake.
It was Saturday, and Sunday morning was market. So, as it were suddenly, the life in the plaza was dense and heavy with potency. The Indians had come in from all the villages, and from far across the lake. And with them they brought the curious heavy potency of life which seems to hum deeper and deeper when they collect together.
In the afternoon, with the wind from the south, the big canoas, sailing-boats with black hulls and one huge sail, had come drifting across the waters, bringing the market-produce and the natives to their gathering ground. All the white specks of villages on the far shore, and on the far-off slopes, had sent their wild quota to the throng.
It was Saturday, and the Indian instinct for living on into the night, once they are gathered together, was now aroused. The people did not go home. Though market would begin at dawn, men had no thought of sleep.
At about nine o'clock, after the fifi dance was shattered, Kate heard a new sound, the sound of a drum, or tom-tom, and saw a drift of the peons away to the dark side of the plaza, where the side market would open to-morrow. Already places had been taken, and little stalls set up, and huge egg-shaped baskets big enough to hold two men were lolling against the wall.
There was a rippling and a pulse-like thudding of the drum, strangely arresting on the night air, then the long note of a flute playing a sort of wild, unemotional melody, with the drum for a syncopated rhythm. Kate, who had listened to the drums and the wild singing of the Red Indians in Arizona and New Mexico, instantly felt that timeless, primeval passion of the prehistoric races, with their intense and complicated religious significance, spreading on the air.
She looked inquiringly at Juana, and Juana's black eyes glanced back at her furtively.
'What is it?' said Kate.
'Musicians, singers,' said Juana evasively.
'But it's DIFFERENT,' said Kate.
'Yes, it is new.'
'Yes, it has only been coming for a short time.'
'Where does it come from?'
'Who knows!' said Juana, with an evasive shrug of her shoulders.
'I want to hear,' said Kate.
'It's purely men,' said Juana.
'Still, one can stand a little way off.'
Kate moved towards the dense, silent throng of men in big hats. They all had their backs to her.
She stood on the step of one of the houses, and saw a little clearing at the centre of the dense throng of men, under the stone wall over which bougainvillea and plumbago flowers were hanging, lit up by the small, brilliantly flaring torches of sweet-smelling wood, which a boy held in his two hands.
The drum was in the centre of the clearing, the drummer standing facing the crowd. He was naked from the waist up, wore snow-white cotton drawers, very full, held round the waist by a red sash, and bound at the ankles with red cords. Round his uncovered head was a red cord, with three straight scarlet feathers rising from the back of his head, and on his forehead a torquoise ornament, a circle of blue with a round blue stone in the centre. The flute-player was also naked to the waist, but over his shoulder was folded a fine white serape with blue-and-dark edges, and fringe. Among the crowd, men with naked shoulders were giving little leaflets to the onlookers. And all the time, high and pure, the queer clay flute was repeating a savage, rather difficult melody, and the drum was giving the blood-rhythm.
More and more men were drifting in from the plaza. Kate stepped from her perch and went rather shyly forward. She wanted one of the papers. The man gave her one without looking at her. And she went into the light to read. It was a sort of ballad, but without rhyme, in Spanish. At the top of the leaflet was a rough print of an eagle within the ring of a serpent that had its tail in its mouth; a curious deviation from the Mexican emblem, which is an eagle standing on a nopal, a cactus with great flat leaves, and holding in its beak and claws a writhing snake.
This eagle stood slim upon the serpent, within the circle of the snake, that had black markings round its back, like short black rays pointing inwards. At a little distance, the emblem suggested an eye.
There was a dense throng of men gathered now, and from the centre the ruddy glow of ocote torches rose warm and strong, and the sweet scent of the cedar-like resin was on the air. Kate could see nothing for the mass of men in big hats.
The flute had stopped its piping, and the drum was beating a slow, regular thud, acting straight on the blood. The incomprehensible hollow barking of the drum was like a spell on the mind, making the heart burst each stroke, and darkening the will.
The men in the crowd began to subside, sitting and squatting on the ground, with their hats between their knees. And now it was a little sea of dark, proud heads leaning a little forward above the soft, strong male shoulders.
Near the wall was a clear circle, with the drum in the centre. The drummer with the naked torso stood tilting his drum towards him, his shoulders gleaming smooth and ruddy in the flare of light. Beside him stood another man holding a banner that hung from a light rod. On the blue field of the banneret was the yellow sun with a black centre, and between the four greater yellow rays, four black rays emerging, so that the sun looked like a wheel spinning with a dazzling motion.
The crowd having all sat down, the six men with naked torsos, who had been giving out the leaflets and ordering the crowd, now came back and sat down in a ring, of which the drummer, with the drum tilted between his knees as he squatted on the ground, was the key. On his right hand sat the banner-bearer, on his left the flautist. They were nine men in the ring, the boy, who sat apart watching the two ocote torches, which he had laid upon a stone supported on a long cane tripod, being the tenth.
The night seemed to have gone still. The curious seed-rattling hum of voices that filled the plaza was hushed. Under the trees, on the pavements, people were still passing unconcerned, but they looked curiously lonely, isolated figures drifting in the twilight of the electric lamps, and going about some exceptional business. They seemed outside the nucleus of life.
Away on the north side, the booths were still flaring, people were buying and selling. But this quarter, too, looked lonely, and outside the actual reality, almost like memory.
When the men sat down, the women began to drift up shyly, and seat themselves on the ground at the outer rim, their full cotton skirts flowering out around them, and their dark rebozos drawn tight over their small, round, shy heads, as they squatted on the ground. Some, too shy to come right up, lingered on the nearest benches of the plaza. And some had gone away. Indeed, a good many men and women had disappeared as soon as the drum was heard.
So that the plaza was curiously void. There was the dense clot of people round the drum, and then the outer world, seeming empty and hostile. Only in the dark little street that gave on to the darkness of the lake, people were standing like ghosts, half lit- up, the men with their serapes over their faces, watching erect and silent and concealed, from the shadow.
But Kate, standing back in the doorway, with Juana sitting on the doorstep at her feet, was fascinated by the silent, half-naked ring of men in the torchlight. Their heads were black, their bodies soft and ruddy with the peculiar Indian beauty that has at the same time something terrible in it. The soft, full, handsome torsos of silent men with heads softly bent a little forward; the soft, easy shoulders, that are yet so broad, and which balance upon so powerful a backbone; shoulders drooping a little, with the relaxation of slumbering, quiescent power; the beautiful ruddy skin, gleaming with a dark fineness; the strong breasts, so male and so deep, yet without the muscular hardening that belongs to white men; and the dark, closed faces, closed upon a darkened consciousness, the black moustaches and delicate beards framing the closed silence of the mouth; all this was strangely impressive, moving strange, frightening emotions in the soul. Those men who sat there in their dark, physical tenderness, so still and soft, they looked at the same time frightening. Something dark, heavy, and reptilian in their silence and their softness. Their very naked torsos were clothed with a subtle shadow, a certain secret obscurity. White men sitting there would have been strong-muscled and frank, with an openness in their very physique, a certain ostensible presence. But not so these men. Their very nakedness only revealed the soft, heavy depths of their natural secrecy, their eternal invisibility. They did not belong to the realm of that which comes forth.
Everybody was quite still; the expectant hush deepened to a kind of dead, night silence. The naked-shouldered men sat motionless, sunk into themselves, and listening with the dark ears of the blood. The red sash went tight round their waists, the wide white trousers, starched rather stiff, were bound round the ankles with red cords, and the dark feet in the glare of the torch looked almost black, in huaraches that had red thongs. What did they want then, in life, these men who sat so softly and without any assertion, yet whose weight was so ponderous, arresting?
Kate was at once attracted and repelled. She was attracted, almost fascinated by the strange NUCLEAR power of the men in the circle. It was like a darkly glowing, vivid nucleus of new life. Repellent the strange heaviness, the sinking of the spirit into the earth, like dark water. Repellent the silent, dense opposition to the pale-faced spiritual direction.
Yet here, and here alone, it seemed to her, life burned with a deep, new fire. The rest of life, as she knew it, seemed wan, bleached and sterile. The pallid wanness and weariness of her world! And here, the dark ruddy figures in the glare of a torch, like the centre of the everlasting fire, surely this was a new kindling of mankind!
She knew it was so. Yet she preferred to be on the fringe, sufficiently out of contact. She could not bear to come into actual contact.
The man with the banner of the sun lifted his face as if he were going to speak. And yet he did not speak. He was old; in his sparse beard were grey hairs, grey hairs over his thick, dark mouth. And his face had the peculiar thickness, with a few deep- scored lines, of the old among these people. Yet his hair rose vigorous and manly from his forehead, his body was smooth and strong. Only, perhaps, a little smoother, heavier, softer than the shoulders of the younger men.
His black eyes gazed sightless for some time. Perhaps he was really blind; perhaps it was a heavy abstraction, a sort of heavy memory working in him, which made his face seem sightless.
Then he began, in a slow, clear, far-off voice, that seemed strangely to echo the vanished barking of the drum:
'Listen to me, men! Listen to me, women of these men! A long time ago, the lake started calling for men, in the quiet of the night. And there were no men. The little charales were swimming round the shore, looking for something, and the bágari and the other big fish would jump out of the water, to look around. But there were no men.
'So one of the gods with hidden faces walked out of the water, and climbed the hill' - he pointed with his hand in the night towards the invisible round hill at the back of the village - 'and looked about. He looked up at the sun, and through the sun he saw the dark sun, the same that made the sun and the world, and will swallow it again like a draught of water.
'He said: Is it time? And from behind the bright sun the four dark arms of the greater sun shot out, and in the shadow men arose. They could see the four dark arms of the sun in the sky. And they started walking.
'The man on the top of the hill, who was a god, looked at the mountains and the flat places, and saw men very thirsty, their tongues hanging out. So he said to them: Come! Come here! Here is my sweet water!
'They came like dogs running with their tongues out, and kneeled on the shore of the lake. And the man on the top of the hill heard them panting with having drunk much water. He said to them: Have you drunk too much into yourselves? Are your bones not dry enough?
'The men made houses on the shore, and the man on the hill, who was a god, taught them to sow maize and beans, and build boats. But he said to them: No boat will save you, when the dark sun ceases to hold out his dark arms abroad in the sky.
'The man on the hill said: I am Quetzalcoatl, who breathed moisture on your dry mouths. I filled your breasts with breath from beyond the sun. I am the wind that whirls from the heart of the earth, the little winds that whirl like snakes round your feet and your legs and your thighs, lifting up the head of the snake of your body, in whom is your power. When the snake of your body lifts its head, beware! It is I, Quetzalcoatl, rearing up in you, rearing up and reaching beyond the bright day, to the sun of darkness beyond, where is your home at last. Save for the dark sun at the back of the day-sun, save for the four dark arms in the heavens, you were bone, and the stars were bone, and the moon an empty sea-shell on a dry beach, and the yellow sun were an empty cup, like the dry thin bone of a dead coyote's head. So beware!
'Without me you are nothing. Just as I, without the sun that is back of the sun, am nothing.
'When the yellow sun is high in the sky, then say: Quetzalcoatl will lift his hand and screen me from this, else I shall burn out, and the land will wither.
'For, say I, in the palm of my hand is the water of life, and on the back of my hand is the shadow of death. And when men forget me, I lift the back of my hand, farewell! Farewell, and the shadow of death.
'But men forgot me. Their bones were moist, their hearts weak. When the snake of their body lifted its head, they said: This is the tame snake that does as we wish. And when they could not bear the fire of the sun, they said: The sun is angry. He wants to drink us up. Let us give him blood of victims.
'And so it was, the dark branches of shade were gone from heaven, and Quetzalcoatl mourned and grew old, holding his hand before his face, to hide his face from men.
'He mourned and said: Let me go home. I am old, I am almost bone. Bone triumphs in me, my heart is a dry gourd. I am weary in Mexico.
'So he cried to the Master-Sun, the dark one, of the unuttered name: I am withering white like a perishing gourd-vine. I am turning to bone. I am denied of these Mexicans. I am waste and weary and old. Take me away.
'Then the dark sun reached an arm, and lifted Quetzalcoatl into the sky. And the dark sun beckoned with a finger, and brought white men out of the east. And they came with a dead god on the Cross, saying: Lo! This is the Son of God! He is dead, he is bone! Lo, your god is bled and dead, he is bone. Kneel and sorrow for him, and weep. For your tears he will give you comfort again, from the dead, and a place among the scentless rose-trees of the after-life, when you are dead.
'Lo! His mother weeps, and the waters of the world are in her hands. She will give you drink, and heal you, and lead you to the land of God. In the land of God you shall weep no more. Beyond the gates of death, when you have passed from the house of bone into the garden of white roses.
'So the weeping Mother brought her Son who was dead on the Cross to Mexico, to live in the temples. And the people looked up no more, saying: The Mother weeps. The Son of her womb is bone. Let us hope for the place of the west, where the dead have peace among the scentless rose-trees, in the Paradise of God.
'For the priests would say: It is beautiful beyond the grave.
'And then the priests grew old, and the tears of the Mother were exhausted, and the Son on the Cross cried out to the dark sun far beyond the sun: What is this that is done to me? Am I dead for ever, and only dead? Am I always and only dead, but bone on a Cross of bone?
'So this cry was heard in the world, and beyond the stars of the night, and beyond the sun of the day.
'Jesus said again: Is it time? My Mother is old like a sinking moon, the old bone of her can weep no more. Are we perished beyond redeem?
'Then the greatest of the great suns spoke aloud from the back of the sun: I will take my Son to my bosom, I will take His Mother on my lap. Like a woman I will put them in my womb, like a mother I will lay them to sleep, in mercy I will dip them in the bath of forgetting and peace and renewal.
'That is all. So hear now, you men, and you women of these men.
'Jesus is going home, to the Father, and Mary is going back, to sleep in the belly of the Father. And they both will recover from death, during the long long sleep.
'But the Father will not leave us alone. We are not abandoned.
'The Father has looked around, and has seen the Morning Star, fearless between the rush of the oncoming yellow sun, and the backward reel of the night. So the Great One, whose name has never been spoken, says: Who art thou, bright watchman? And the dawn- star answering: It is I, the Morning Star, who in Mexico was Quetzalcoatl. It is I, who look at the yellow sun from behind, have my eye on the unseen side of the moon. It is I, the star, midway between the darkness and the rolling of the sun. I, called Quetzalcoatl, waiting in the strength of my days.
''The Father answered: It is well. It is well. And again: It is time.
'Thus the big word was spoken behind the back of the world. The Nameless said: It is time.
'Once more the word has been spoken: It is time.
'Listen, men, and the women of men: It is time. Know now it is time. Those that left us are coming back. Those that came are leaving again. Say welcome, and then farewell!
The old man ended with a strong, suppressed cry, as if really calling to the gods:
'Bienvenido! Bienvenido! Adiós! Adiós!'
Even Juana, seated at Kate's feet, cried out without knowing what she did:
'Bienvenido! Bienvenido! Adiós! Adiós! Adiós-n!'
On the last adiós! she trailed out to a natural human 'n.'
The drum began to beat with an insistent, intensive rhythm, and the flute, or whistle, lifted its odd, far-off calling voice. It was playing again and again the peculiar melody Kate had heard at first.
Then one of the men in the circle lifted his voice, and began to sing the hymn. He sang in the fashion of the old Red Indians, with intensity and restraint, singing inwardly, singing to his own soul, not outward to the world, nor yet even upward to God, as the Christians sing. But with a sort of suppressed, tranced intensity, singing to the inner mystery, singing not into space, but into the other dimension of man's existence, where he finds himself in the infinite room that lies inside the axis of our wheeling space. Space, like the world, cannot but move. And like the world, there is an axis. And the axis of our worldly space, when you enter, is a vastness where even the trees come and go, and the soul is at home in its own dream, noble and unquestioned.
The strange, inward pulse of the drum, and the singer singing inwardly, swirled the soul back into the very centre of time, which is older than age. He began on a high, remote note, and holding the voice at a distance, ran on in subtle, running rhythms, apparently unmeasured, yet pulsed underneath by the drum, and giving throbbing, three-fold lilts and lurches. For a long time, no melody at all was recognizable: it was just a lurching, running, far-off crying, something like the distant faint howling of a coyote. It was really the music of the old American Indian.
There was no recognizable rhythm, no recognizable emotion, it was hardly music. Rather a far-off, perfect crying in the night. But it went straight through to the soul, the most ancient and everlasting soul of all men, where alone can the human family assemble in immediate contact.
Kate knew it at once, like a sort of fate. It was no good resisting. There was neither urge nor effort, nor any speciality. The sound sounded in the innermost far-off place of the human core, the ever-present, where there is neither hope nor emotion, but passion sits with folded wings on the nest, and faith is a tree of shadow.
Like fate, like doom. Faith is the Tree of Life itself, inevitable, and the apples are upon us, like the apples of the eye, the apples of the chin, the apple of the heart, the apples of the breast, the apple of the belly, with its deep core, the apples of the loins, the apples of the knees, the little, side-by-side apples of the toes. What do change and evolution matter? We are the Tree with the fruit forever upon it. And we are faith forever. Verbum sat.
The one singer had finished, and only the drum kept on, touching the sensitive membrane of the night subtly and knowingly. Then a voice in the circle rose again on the song, and like birds flying from a tree, one after the other, the individual voices arose, till there was a strong, intense, curiously weighty soaring and sweeping of male voices, like a dark flock of birds flying and dipping in unison. And all the dark birds seemed to have launched out of the heart, in the inner forest of the masculine chest.
And one by one, voices in the crowd broke free, like birds launching and coming in from a distance, caught by the spell. The words did not matter. Any verse, any words, no words, the song remained the same: a strong, deep wind rushing from the caverns of the breast, from the everlasting soul! Kate herself was too shy and wincing to sing: too blenched with disillusion. But she heard the answer away back in her soul, like a far-off mocking-bird at night. And Juana was singing in spite of herself, in a crooning feminine voice, making up the words unconsciously.
The half-naked men began to reach for their serapes: white serapes, with borders of blue and earth-brown bars, and dark fringe. A man rose from the crowd and went towards the lake. He came back with ocote and with faggots that a boat had brought over. And he started a little fire. After a while, another man went for fuel, and started another fire in the centre of the circle, in front of the drum. Then one of the women went off soft and bare-foot, in her full cotton skirt. And she made a little bonfire among the women.
The air was bronze with the glow of flame, and sweet with smoke like incense. The song rose and fell, then died away. Rose, and died. The drum ebbed on, faintly touching the dark membrane of the night. Then ebbed away. In the absolute silence could be heard the soundless stillness of the dark lake.
Then the drum started again, with a new, strong pulse. One of the seated men, in his white poncho with the dark blackish-and-blue border, got up, taking off his sandals as he did so, and began softly to dance the dance step. Mindless, dancing heavily and with a curious bird-like sensitiveness of the feet, he began to tread the earth with his bare soles, as if treading himself deep into the earth. Alone, with a curious pendulum rhythm, leaning a little forward from a powerful backbone, he trod to the drum beat, his white knees lifting and lifting alternately against the dark fringe of his blanket, with a queer dark splash. And another man put his huaraches into the centre of the ring, near the fire, and stood up to dance. The man at the drum lifted up his voice in a wild, blind song. The men were taking off their ponchos. And soon, with the firelight on their breasts and on their darkly abstracted faces, they were all afoot, with bare torsos and bare feet, dancing the savage bird-tread.
'Who sleeps shall wake! Who sleeps shall wake! Who treads down the path of the snake in the dust shall arrive at the place; in the path of the dust shall arrive at the place and be dressed in the skin of the snake: shall be dressed in the skin of the snake of the earth, that is father of stone; that is father of stone and the timber of earth; of the silver and gold, of the iron, the timber of earth from the bone of the father of earth, of the snake of the world, of the heart of the world, that beats as a snake beats the dust in its motion on earth, from the heart of the world.
'Who slee-eeps sha-all wake! Who slee-eeps sha-all wake! Who sleeps sha-ll wake in the way of the snake of the dust of the earth, of the stone of the earth, of the bone of the earth.'
The song seemed to take new wild flights, after it had sunk and rustled to a last ebb. It was like waves that rise out of the invisible, and rear up into form and a flying, disappearing whiteness and a rustle of extinction. And the dancers, after dancing in a circle in a slow, deep absorption, each man changeless in his own place, treading the same dust with the soft churning of bare feet, slowly, slowly began to revolve, till the circle was slowly revolving round the fire, with always the same soft, down- sinking, churning tread. And the drum kept the changeless living beat, like a heart, and the song rose and soared and fell, ebbed and ebbed to a sort of extinction, then heaved up again.
Till the young peons could stand it no more. They put off their sandals and their hats and their blankets, and shyly, with inexpert feet that yet knew the old echo of the tread, they stood behind the wheeling dancers, and danced without changing place. Till soon the revolving circle had a fixed yet throbbing circle of men outside.
Then suddenly one of the naked-shouldered dancers from the inner circle stepped back into the outer circle and with a slow leaning, slowly started the outer circle revolving in the reverse direction from the inner. So now there were two wheels of the dance, one within the other, and revolving in different directions.
They kept on and on, with the drum and the song, revolving like wheels of shadow-shapes around the fire. Till the fire died low, and the drum suddenly stopped, and the men suddenly dispersed, returning to their seats again.
There was silence, then the low hum of voices and the sound of laughter. Kate had thought, so often, that the laughter of the peons broke from them in a sound almost like pain. But now the laughs came like little invisible flames, suddenly from the embers of the talk.
Everybody was waiting, waiting. Yet nobody moved at once, when the thud of the drum struck again like a summons. They sat still talking, listening with a second consciousness. Then a man arose and threw off his blanket, and threw wood on the central fire. Then he walked through the seated men to where the women clustered in the fullness of their skirts. There he waited, smiling with a look of abstraction. Till a girl rose and came with utmost shyness towards him, holding her rebozo tight over her lowered head with her right hand, and taking the hand of the man in her left. It was she who lifted the motionless hand of the man in her own, shyly, with a sudden shy snatching. He laughed, and led her through the now risen men, towards the inner fire. She went with dropped head, hiding her face in confusion. But side by side and loosely holding hands, they began to tread the soft, heavy dance-step, forming the first small segment of the inner, stationary circle.
And now all the men were standing facing outwards, waiting to be chosen. And the women quickly, their shawled heads hidden, were slipping in and picking up the loose right hand of the man of their choice. The inner men with the naked shoulders were soon chosen. The inner circle, of men and women in pairs, hand in hand, was closing.
'Come, Niña, come!' said Juana, looking up at Kate with black, gleaming eyes.
'I am afraid!' said Kate. And she spoke the truth.
One of the bare-breasted men had come across the street, out of the crowd, and was standing waiting, near the doorway in which Kate stood, silently, with averted face.
'Look! Niña! This master is waiting for you. Then come! Oh, Niña, come!'
The voice of the criada had sunk to the low, crooning, almost magical appeal of the women of the people, and her black eyes glistened strangely, watching Kate's face. Kate, almost mesmerized, took slow, reluctant steps forward, towards the man who was standing with averted face.
'Do you mind?' she said in English, in great confusion. And she touched his fingers with her own.
His hand, warm and dark and savagely suave, loosely, almost with indifference, and yet with the soft barbaric nearness, held her fingers, and he led her to the circle. She dropped her head, and longed to be able to veil her face. In her white dress and green straw hat, she felt a virgin again, a young virgin. This was the quality these men had been able to give back to her.
Shyly, awkwardly, she tried to tread the dance-step. But in her shoes she felt inflexible, insulated, and the rhythm was not in her. She moved in confusion.
But the man beside her held her hand in the same light, soft grasp, and the slow, pulsing pendulum of his body swayed untrammelled. He took no notice of her. And yet he held her fingers in his soft, light touch.
Juana had discarded her boots and stockings, and with her dark, creased face like a mask of obsidian, her eyes gleaming with the timeless female flame, dark and unquenchable, she was treading the step of the dance.
'As the bird of the sun treads the earth at the dawn of the day like a brown hen under his feet, like a hen and the branches of her belly droop with the apples of birth, with the eggs of gold, with the eggs that hide the globe of the sun in the waters of heaven, in the purse of the shell of earth that is white from the fire of the blood, tread the earth, and the earth will conceive like the hen 'neath the feet of the bird of the sun; 'neath the feet of the heart, 'neath the heart's twin feet. Tread the earth, tread the earth that squats as a pullet with wings closed in - '
The circle began to shift, and Kate was slowly moving round between two silent and absorbed men, whose arms touched her arms. And the one held her fingers softly, loosely, but with transcendent nearness. And the wild song rose again like a bird that has alighted for a second, and the drum changed rhythm incomprehensibly.
The outer wheel was all men. She seemed to feel the strange dark glow of them upon her back. Men, dark, collective men, non- individual. And herself woman, wheeling upon the great wheel of womanhood.
Men and women alike danced with faces lowered and expressionless, abstract, gone in the deep absorption of men into the greater manhood, women into the great womanhood. It was sex, but the greater, not the lesser sex. The waters over the earth wheeling upon the waters under the earth, like an eagle silently wheeling above its own shadow.
She felt her sex and her womanhood caught up and identified in the slowly revolving ocean of nascent life, the dark sky of the men lowering and wheeling above. She was not herself, she was gone, and her own desires were gone in the ocean of the great desire. As the man whose fingers touched hers was gone in the ocean that is male, stooping over the face of the waters.
The slow, vast, soft-touching revolution of the ocean above upon ocean below, with no vestige of rustling or foam. Only the pure sliding conjunction. Herself gone into her greater self, her womanhood consummated in the greater womanhood. And where her fingers touched the fingers of the man, the quiet spark, like the dawn-star, shining between her and the greater manhood of men.
How strange, to be merged in desire beyond desire, to be gone in the body beyond the individualism of the body, with the spark of contact lingering like a morning star between her and the man, her woman's greater self, and the greater self of man. Even of the two men next to her. What a beautiful slow wheel of dance, two great streams streaming in contact, in opposite directions.
She did not know the face of the man whose fingers she held. Her personal eyes had gone blind, his face was the face of dark heaven, only the touch of his fingers a star that was both hers and his.
Her feet were feeling the way into the dance-step. She was beginning to learn softly to loosen her weight, to loosen the uplift of all her life, and let it pour slowly, darkly, with an ebbing gush, rhythmical in soft, rhythmic gushes from her feet into the dark body of the earth. Erect, strong like a staff of life, yet to loosen all the sap of her strength and let it flow down into the roots of the earth.
She had lost count of time. But the dance of itself seemed to be wheeling to a close, though the rhythm remained exactly the same to the end.
The voice finished singing, only the drum kept on. Suddenly the drum gave a rapid little shudder, and there was silence. And immediately the hands were loosened, the dance broke up into fragments. The man gave her a quick, far-off smile and was gone. She would never know him by sight. But by presence she might know him.
The women slipped apart, clutching their rebozos tight round their shoulders. The men hid themselves in their blankets. And Kate turned to the darkness of the lake.
'Already you are going, Niña?' came Juana's voice of mild, aloof disappointment.
'I must go now,' said Kate hurriedly.
And she hastened towards the dark of the lake, Juana running behind her with shoes and stockings in her hand.
Kate wanted to hurry home with her new secret, the strange secret of her greater womanhood, that she could not get used to. She would have to sink into this mystery.
She hastened along the uneven path of the edge of the lake shore, that lay dark in shadow, though the stars gave enough light to show the dark bulks and masts of the sailing-canoes against the downy obscurity of the water. Night, timeless, hourless night! She would not look at her watch. She would lay her watch face down, to hide its phosphorus figures. She would not be timed.
And as she sank into sleep, she could hear the drum again, like a pulse inside a stone beating.